Warning: There are lot of spoilers for Final Fantasy VIII below.
Squall Leonhart, a 17-year old loner, is on the cusp of becoming an official SeeD (a mercenary) at a military academy called Balamb Garden. His first mission sounds normal enough: secure the city center of Dollet from invading forces. Within less than a half hour, Squall and his party are fighting off a giant gargoyle that’s been terrorizing the official radio tower. After restoring radio communications for the first time in 17 years, everyone is chased by a mechanized spider. A heart-pounding CGI sequence shows Squall making a run for it while his teammates watch from inside the ship, which is already taking off. He takes a leap, but not before his instructor, Quistis Trepe, mounts a gatling gun and pumps the spider full of bullets. The door closes and they sail back, saying nothing about the robot spider.
Final Fantasy VIII was Square’s first foray into a genre mashup, pitting mercenary teens against an evil sorceress from the future. Its world is a bizarre amalgamation of hi-tech society, magic, and metaphysics. Originally released in 1999, Final Fantasy VIII showcases a growth spurt in Square’s catalog: motion capture CGI, realistic in-game character proportions, a new leveling system. But like any growth spurt, there are growing pains and awkward moments. Some of those moments even turned into memes. Its best parts come from recognizing the escalating absurdity of the plot, and how this affected the way characters travel around the world.
Early on, the game sets an expectation of the unexpected, and it escalates from there. The second mission is to assassinate his wife (!!) on a parade float. A T-Rex lives in your school’s training center. Your school can fly, but you still have to rent a car and buy gas. Your girlfriend’s dog can randomly interrupt your battles. You discover a technologically advanced city hidden from the world (Wakanda, anyone?) and your unknown dad is its president. It all continues, ever upward.
From the Guardian Forces frequently used in battle to discovering new and terrifying things about the school you grew up in, the events in Final Fantasy VIII are almost too strange to believe. I never wanted to stop playing it for a minute because what could possibly happen next? How does anyone follow up the realization that your headmaster wants you to KILL HIS WIFE IN A PARADE?
All Aboard the Death Express
More than any other title in the franchise, the battles of Final Fantasy VIII rely heavily on the summoning of Guardian Forces, more commonly referred to as “GFs.” They’re powerful beings that can be called during battle to deal massive damage to enemies. Some of these are directly inspired by mythological figures; Leviathan is a serpent who unleashes a tsunami, Siren strums a harp on a rocky coast to silence enemies. But there’s one GF who’s not confined to the laws of nature or logic: Doomtrain.
Doomtrain is exactly what it sounds like: a demonic ghost train. It has a skeletal face scrunched in agony and a body of cars that taper into a bony tail. When summoned, two railroad crossing gates appear and box in your enemies. Suddenly, they are…in space, stuck on a pair of train tracks as if they'd been tied there by Snidely Whiplash himself.
Doomtrain descends a winding road lit by flames, chugging at a terrifying pace. Your enemies, disoriented from being inexplicably thrust into the galaxy, have no choice but to wait for this bone train to pull into the station. When it finally runs over your enemies, they are not only damaged, but now inflicted with myriad status ailments. Doomtrain is not only a ghost train, it is a poison train. And just as quickly as it appears, it’s gone.
I Believe I Can Fly
Walking, renting a car, and riding a train are all normal forms of transportation. But this is Final Fantasy VIII. Its modes of transportation intensify as the game progresses—the more dire the situation, the more outlandish the ride.
When a missile strike on Balamb Garden is announced, students and faculty rush to evacuate. Headmaster Cid orders Squall to venture into the bowels of the school (because that’s a great idea) and the teen discovers a long-forgotten mechanism that jolts the Garden into motion. What looks like a decorative halo on top of the Garden begins to descend and takes its place underneath the building, serving as some sort of hovering mechanism. The Garden escapes the missiles and almost crashes into its namesake town before finally veering into the ocean. But it’s OK. It can also swim. It sprouted a fin before it crashed into the sea.
While adrift on the ocean, the headmaster loses control of the school yet again and crashes it into a fisherman’s village. At this point, he is an absolute mess. It’s been a rough time for Cid Kramer. Moments ago, his wife ordered a missile attack on the school, and he got into a huge fight with the monster living in the basement. The what?
…I forgot to mention the monster living in the basement.
A Very Rich Monster and His Shady Business Ventures
The giant monster living in Balamb Garden’s basement is named NORG, and—he funds the school. It’s unclear how he amassed so much money, but it was his business acumen and deep pockets that kept the school afloat during hard times. The headmaster originally wanted to establish the Garden as a precautionary measure against evil sorceresses, but lacked the funds.
To generate a steady source of income, NORG came up with the idea to lend out SeeD as mercenaries. Most of the school didn’t know he existed until he initiated a full-scale riot against Cid and his supporters. The headmaster is seen being physically thrown out of NORG’s chambers while yelling, “Dammit! I wish I could go back ten or so years … to tell myself that you’re nothing but a money grubbing son-of-a-bitch! Then I would’ve never built this place.”
After NORG is defeated, Balamb Garden somehow continues to survive despite its primary financial stakeholder turning into a glowing cocoon. Squall and his comrades descend further into political strife. The region of Galbadia is now fully under control of Sorceress Edea, who, again, is also Cid’s wife. Between the missile strike and the assassination attempt, a lover’s quarrel seems likely.
But this is Final Fantasy VIII we’re talking about. Instead, it’s revealed Edea is actually being controlled by another sorceress from the distant future named Ultimecia. With the power of time and magic on her side, it’s confusing as to why Ultimecia chose to slowly infiltrate a government body rather than immediately wiping out the teenagers who would eventually kill her. But! Ultimecia obtains a Galbadian Ambassador position as Edea, throws herself a celebratory parade, then appears on a televised press conference to hold the president hostage. Incredible.
"The giant monster living in Balamb Garden’s basement is named NORG, and—he funds the school. It’s unclear how he amassed so much money, but it was his business acumen and deep pockets that kept the school afloat during hard times."
My GF Goes to Another School
Shortly after her TV debut, Ultimecia decides she is tired of her Ambassador position and seizes control of Galbadia Garden. As they clash with Balamb Garden, Squall enters the rival school to confront the sorceress, but not before—wait for it—seeing some really weird shit.
Like, say, a walkable ice rink that may lead to random encounters with hockey players! But nothing in this game is what it appears to be. They’re monsters called Slappers, and they are a real hockey team using skate formations to attack your party. “Stick, Formation M! Go!!!” and “We have heart! Go Galbadia!” are two of my favorites.
Elsewhere in the lobby, a three-headed dog aptly named Cerberus appears as an optional boss battle. He offers his services to you as a Guardian Force upon defeat, but there’s no explanation as to why this terrifying, drooling creature is hanging out by the entrance. Cerberus is just straight up chilling in the lobby. Students and faculty walking around like nothing’s wrong. After taming the three-headed GF, the last task is to go fight the headmaster’s wife in a lecture hall. The entire affair culminates with Rinoa, Squall’s love interest, getting possessed and falling into a coma.
Love in a Dangeous Spacetime
Typical teenage boys might run after their drunk girlfriends, but not Squall. His dedication to Rinoa defies the ordinary. True love is chasing down your possessed girlfriend in a space station. Real romance is accepting your partner after she unsealed a war criminal sorceress from a cryogenic tomb. Oh yes. Of course they go to outer space.
The reason they go to space is—unsurprisingly—complicated. Squall is taking a comatose Rinoa to the Lunar Base Space Station (please say that aloud quickly) in hopes that Ellone, his estranged, unofficial sister who can send people’s consciousnesses back in time, can help Rinoa. Wow! Love to meet family.
Once Squall saves Rinoa from floating in the vastness of space, everything is fine again. It’s totally OK that she helped unleash a geyser of moon monsters onto her home planet. The happy couple looks over their shoulders and find an abandoned spaceship in perfect condition. They share a romantic moment after wiping out the alien couples inhabiting the ship, and piloted the ship home. It’s called the Ragnarok, shaped like a red dragon and plays chipper music. Their very own spaceship! And they got it for free!
Shortly after they acquire the ship, they crash it into a floating 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith that people call Lunatic Pandora. Inside it, there’s an elaborate excavation site that houses a crystal pillar dropped from the moon. It also has a lobby and three elevators, for some reason. After that, the ultimate mode of transportation: sorceress-induced time compression. Obviously.
When Squall and his friends travel to Ultimecia’s time, they tumble through past, present, and future to get to her castle. From there, an elaborate and violent game of Home Alone ensues. Booby traps and powerful monsters lurk in every corner of this woman’s Baroque-themed house. It is a non-stop thrill ride, all the way until the literal end of time and space.
After the first SeeD mission, Squall is thrown into one strange life-threatening situation after another. Trying to assassinate a sorceress during a parade, thwarting and surviving a missile attack, fighting a monster living in the school basement, launching into outer space. There’s almost no time for anyone to notice how weird all the little details are. There are flashy battles, dramatic CGI sequences, and so much humor—intentional and not—that it makes the game’s quiet moments hit so much harder. By the time the game comes to a close, everyone’s been through so much. But its characters are so earnest in the face of all these near-hallucinatory sequence of events that it’s hard not to root for them.
Final Fantasy VIII may not be the most famous or beloved entry in the franchise, but it’s certainly the most memorable. Its charm lies in usurping any and all expectations about politics, love, and even the reliability of transportation. It is a masterpiece.